The joke in Ghostbusters depended on the excellence of the special effects - unless the audience was dazzled, Murray's indifference would work against the film - but the actor's shtick as Mr Unimpressed has proved surprisingly serviceable. In his best roles there is a sort of sardonic forcefield around him, keeping him at an odd remove from the world. He's unimpressed, but what makes him likeable is that he makes no real claim to superiority. It's not that he's super-cool, he's just unimpressed. He can play unattractive characters, but when he does, his sleaziness has a sort of innocence to it. It's as if he hasn't noticed that his motives are base and his actions self-serving. He's willing to change.
He may, for instance, hump a woman's leg when he first meets her, but once it's explained to him that flowers and sweet talk stand more chance of making her like him, he'll try that instead. It's just that something in the way he does it leaves the possibility open that treating a woman to flowers and sweet talk may just be a subtler way of humping her leg.
Now Harold Ramis, who wrote Ghostbusters, has directed and co-written (with Danny Rubin) Groundhog Day (PG), a vehicle for Murray with an oddly haunting central idea.
Phil Connors, a jaded weatherman, wakes up the day after 2 February - when he has had to present a segment from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, commemorating the ceremony of Groundhog Day, when a rodent's behaviour is used to predict the arrival of spring - to find that Sonny and Cher's 'I Got You Babe' is playing on his clock-radio, exactly as it was the morning before. The DJ's patter is reproduced word for word, and at first he thinks that they've mixed up their tapes, until it dawns on him that it is 2 February that is repeating itself. For the rest of the film he experiences hundreds, perhaps thousands, of 2 Februarys, unable to break out of the cycle of repetition.
This simple situation, which the character experiences alternately as dream and as nightmare, since he can manipulate events within the day but apparently never escape from it, has any amount of resonance. To an existential philosopher, the hero, condemned to freedom in a quite specific way, might seem to embody the human condition, in its combination of responsibility and pointlessness. To a religious sensibility, Groundhog Day might seem to offer an exquisite example of divine justice, whereby a sinner is punished by being given so much of his sin that he chokes on it. The hero, whose vices are self-absorption and disdain for the world, is forced to inhabit a universe where only he is real, and to understand that this is hell.
On the other hand, anyone who has ever played a video game (and this is not a market segment that Hollywood can be accused of ignoring) will recognise that Phil Connors (Murray) wakes up in a sort of virtual reality of that past time. As he moves through the same landmarks day after day, he racks up predetermined points and penalties. Getting wiped out doesn't stop the cosmic game, as he discovers after a protracted phase of suicide. There is only going to be one way - at most - of making an escape from the existential software, and he has to discover what it is.
Many of the points and penalties that the hero scores are attached to the figure of his colleague Rita (Andie MacDowell), as upbeat as he is pessimistic, as fresh as he is jaded. First of all he tries to manipulate her into bed, but finds - montage of his face being slapped in a variety of settings - that this is not possible in the few recurring hours at his disposal. Her body is simply off-limits by the rules of the game. Next he tries her mind, convincing her of the reality of his plight - by now he knows the life story of most of the town's inhabitants and can 'predict' events he's witnessed many times. She stays the night with him out of sympathy, but still she has vanished by the time he wakes up the previous morning. Finally, he lays siege to her heart, which is necessarily a longer project. Day after repeated day he takes piano lessons, practises his ice-sculpting, performs acts of civic virtue, until finally he has become a person she could love. Tiny cumulative changes in his personality finally sweep her off her feet.
This is where the script begins to yield diminishing returns. For one thing, since for Rita each 2 February is her first, the character can't develop, and she remains in essence a lovely hologram. The Bill Murray character, on the other hand, develops altogether too much. The twinge of amorality in his persona - the idea that he could improve his behaviour without changing his nature - can't survive the thorough-going programme of reform that is necessary to break the cycle of the story.
It is this unwelcome hint of uplift near the end of a hitherto inventive film that reveals the parentage of Groundhog Day. Like so many successful films, it derives by variation and inversion from It's a Wonderful Life. Whereas in Capra's film a man who thought he had made no contribution to the world was shown that things would have been a whole lot worse if he hadn't existed, in Groundhog Day the hero is shown that to date he has made no contribution, and is forced by a sort of erosion therapy to live up to his potential. The shared theme of second chances (ubiquitous in the film production of a country that still regards itself in some way as some big second chance, an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of other countries) is symbolised in Life by the New Year - the calendar reborn; in Groundhog Day by the beginning of spring - the rebirth of nature.
In Groundhog Day, the hero and the narrative function as a single unit, which is a formally satisfying device for most of the time but also bad news, since the plot can't be worked out (which we want) without the character changing completely (which we don't). But even at its most negligible, Harold Ramis's film is intensely cinematic, not because he is some kind of genius director - he's not - but because in the end it's down to film language whether the hero is in hell or in heaven: whether the camera keeps pace with the unbearably repetitive elements that begin each day, or cuts blithely from one version of a scene to the next, as if Phil Connors were no more than an actor granted an infinite number of takes to get his scene right.